Fishing Lines: Why they are no longer slaying our tuna

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The Independent Online
A RECENT conference in New York called for drastic measures to protect the world's declining stocks of bluefin tuna, or tunny. With annual catches said to be 50 per cent of the breeding population, tunny are now rarer than the common dolphin, which tuna fishermen have been urged to protect.

In such circumstances, you cannot rate Mark Goff's chances of catching a tuna on rod and line off Scarborough too highly. Some time over the next couple of weeks, Goff plans to spend a night at sea in the forlorn hope of capturing the first rod-caught tuna from our coast for nearly 40 years.

He is convinced that the fish, once comparatively common in the North Sea, are still there. 'In 1984 a trawler in the Bay of Donegal caught nine. But these fish are crew perks. Because they are worth so much (a single fish can fetch up to pounds 20,000 in Japan) things are kept very quiet. So the Inland Revenue doesn't hear. But I am certain they are still to be caught off Scarborough,' he says.

These are brave words from someone who spent a week on a North Sea trawler five years ago without even seeing a tuna. But Goff is buoyed by the memories of the great years of tuna fishing, when dozens of fish, averaging 600lb, were caught. In 1932, a Scarborough tunny of 851lb broke the world record, and this is still the largest fish ever to have been caught off the British coast on rod and line.

After the war, there was a tuna revival, and 45 were caught in 1949. But five years later none were taken, almost entirely because of the dastardly Danes. Hooking the tuna wasn't a problem, but getting them in was. The most powerful of all game fish, and growing as large as 2,000lb, they took strength to subdue. Old Etonian L. Mitchell-Henry, who pioneered British tuna fishing and caught that record-breaking 851-pounder, used to practise daily in his Ealing, west London garage with a complicated system of weights and pulleys to simulate a charging tuna.

But the dirty Danes merely used electrified lines. The moment a tuna took the herring bait, a charge went down the line and the fish floated up dead. In 1953 one boat alone caught 230 tunny averaging 600lb, and it was estimated that commercial boats were taking between 3,000 and 4,000 a year. No wonder that Scarborough, once a mecca for big-game anglers from all over the world, lost its magic.

While Goff's capture of a tuna would prove a tremendous draw for the east coast port, such an event is unlikely to rekindle the days when aristocracy from all over Europe flocked to Scarborough and the public paid 3d (1d for children) just to see the giant fish. (This alone raised more than pounds 700 for charity one year.)

It would also raise the spectre of trawlers plundering the few remaining fish, which are far easier to catch nowadays with echo sounders and modern nets. Back in the 1950s, when tuna fishing was on the decline, one of the top skippers, asked how the fish could be protected, said: 'The only way is to put a couple of doors on the North Sea.'

If anyone has records, photographs or equipment from those halcyon days, I would be delighted to see them.